Getting Past the 'Unified Storage' Label


It seems that everywhere you look these days, the term "unified storage" is being tossed around. Whether it's open storage platforms or integration of networking protocols, anyone who is anybody is looking to get on the unified bandwagon.

But while most people are busying themselves with nailing down a hard definition of unified storage, I think there is a more fundamental question at hand: "What, exactly, can any given storage platform do for you?"

The concept of a single, overarching storage regime that can meet all of your needs with little investment and even less overhead is an appealing one, although not likely to happen in any of our lifetimes. The varied nature of stored data, from near-line file data to remote backup and recovery, ensures that storage systems will continue to be complex beasts filled with various technologies and protocols designed to perform specific functions.

But that doesn't mean the concept of consolidating or integrating storage resources has no value. Indeed, there is always a way to simplify existing infrastructure so that it can perform the necessary functions with fewer hassles.

Storage Switzerland's George Crump has embarked on a series of blogs this week designed to navigate the ins and outs of some of the more popular systems out there. The most common of these include some combination of SAN and NAS functionality, but as he points out, it's more important to look at actual capabilities of a particular system than to fret over whether it's truly unified. Does a simple gateway connecting different infrastructures qualify? What if you gain iSCSI and NAS support, but not Fibre Channel? If the solution works for you, who cares? But don't be taken in by buzzwords that have little or no meaning.

When it comes to actual results, there are some pretty impressive numbers being touted by leading vendors. Take the Sun Storage 7110 system as an example. The company is claiming record performance on the SPECmail2009 benchmark, designed to mimic real-world e-mail conditions. Using a Sun Fire X4275 with a pair of Xeon X5570s and running the Java Messaging System on Solaris 10, the company says it was able to support one-third more users with half the disk drives normally needed in a direct-attached storage (DAS) configuration. The 7110, by the way, supports 4 G Fibre Channel, 10 GbE and iSCSI, as well as the NFS, CIFS and Sun's own ZFS file formats.

Small businesses have a stake in streamlining their storage architectures as well. Companies like NetGear are offering solutions like the ReadyNAS that can scale to 24 TB of capacity with both NAS and iSCSI support for up to 250 users. Sure, Fibre Channel isn't part of the mix here, but that's not surprising considering the system is not aimed at large organizations. What you do get is the company's RAIDiator operating system that supports the Apple Filing Protocol (AFP), as well as file and application service support for Windows, Linux and UNIX.

I guess the point is that aside from getting caught up in the latest industry trend, the goal should be to deploy the system that solves the most problems at the lowest possible price. If one guy calls it unified and another calls it something else, so be it.

The proof of its usefulness will show up in your next quarterly report.